Heart Of Football

Merseyside fervour lingers even as both sides sputter

Manchester United travel to Arsenal this evening with a chance to retain top spot in the English Premier League (EPL) table.

But nothing, not even previous enmities between those two clubs, makes the hairs stand up on the back of the neck, or the red blood corpuscles rush through the veins like the Merseyside Derby, which kicks off at lunch-time on this autumnal Sunday in England.

Some of the red mist departed Merseyside when Liverpool skipper Steven Gerrard flew across the Atlantic. But, trust me, the underbelly of feeling remains, and even the foreigners in Everton blue and Liverpool scarlet will find themselves running to the edge of control, and beyond.

There's a reason why this fixture accounts for more red cards (20 of them, 13 against Everton) in the EPL era.

For this derby dates back to 1892, the year when there was a boardroom and dressing-room split at Everton, the parent club.

The problem for Rodgers is that he always seems to be in a rebuilding phase, always seeking to prove that his management style fits the ambitions of the owners across the Pond.

History matters, even when it is family. Everton were the original owners of Anfield but, because of rows over politics and religion, half the players left Anfield to form a new club across Stanley Park.

They were still called Everton, and the land they purchased became Everton.

Those who were left behind at Anfield continued to play under the title Liverpool FC.

More than 120 years on, divisions remain. You can be born into the same family, share the same Merseyside home, yet, twice a year, walk out to roar on opposing sides.

Winning and losing will make a difference to the workplace this week, and over the next months until the teams meet, or collide again at Anfield.

It is tribal, with a lower-case "t".

There are youths, such as Everton's right-back Tyias Browning and Ross Barkley, who grew up dreaming of wearing blue.

Barkley, yet to grow into his gifted feet, is talked about as another Wayne Rooney.

Browning has suddenly blossomed at right-back because of injury to Seamus Coleman. And, at left-back, 19-year-old Brendan Galloway deputises for probably the best left-back in English football, the also injured Leighton Baines.

Take two flying full-backs out and you'd imagine Everton would lose impetus. However, Roberto Martinez, the Everton manager, loves nothing more than turning negatives into a positive, and his two young full-backs have stepped up to the plate.

It seems a long, long time since August when Everton fans, disgruntled about the lack of spending, hired a private plane to fly over Southampton where the team were playing. The plane trailed a banner demanding that the board, led by theatre impresario Bill Kenwright, sell up.

Kenwright's main fault is he is not a billionaire, and not able to invest the sums that others - including the Reds - have done, since Bostonian investors Fenway Sports Group took over Liverpool from the previous American owners on Oct 6, 2010.

Martinez did not miss the opportunity to tell the media that, on the basis of what Liverpool have spent over the past three seasons (£289 million, or S$630 million), the pressure of expectation is on Brendan Rodgers' side.

It's cheeky of Martinez to interpret things that way. The spending tends to be turnover when a club like Liverpool are forced to sell Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling. The £125 million paid for them becomes recycled - not so far overly successful.

Rodgers, the Reds' manager, is still trying to rebuild, to recycle, to recapture what he had with that pair, and a fit Daniel Sturridge, scoring.

Sturridge is back, at last, after seemingly interminable injuries. He is prompted now by Philippe Coutinho, but unless Liverpool can qualify for Champions League football, it is unlikely to keep the Brazilian playmaker beyond this season.

The problem for Rodgers is that he always seems to be in a rebuilding phase, always seeking to prove that his management style fits the ambitions of the owners across the Pond.

"No, no, not not at all," he said, and keeps on saying, at his pre-match press conferences when asked if he fear Fenway's patience might run out before he beds down his new team. "We go into every game with the notion of performing well, and with a wee bit of luck, winning.

"Goodison Park is no different."

But it is, and he knows it.

One thing about the American owners is that they grasp the importance of winning, or at least not losing the derby.

In fact, the last time Liverpool lost to Everton was this month five years ago, when Fenway was in the process of finalising the takeover.

There was no coming back for the then manager Roy Hodgson after a 2-0 defeat that day.

Now, as whisperers suggest names from Ajax coach Frank de Boer to the unemployed list, including Juergen Klopp, are being sounded out for Anfield, the derby is being billed as the game Rodgers cannot lose.

Recent history is on his side.

That game five years ago was the last time that Everton have won this fixture. Going back even further, Everton's record in the derby has accounted for just four victories over 32 games.

And going back all the way to the 1890s, Liverpool have 88 wins against Everton's 66, with 70 tied.

The case for the Reds today is pinned on Sturridge and Danny Ings, should Christian Benteke be still out through a damaged hamstring.

The Toffees are on a roll of six games unbeaten, and the belief that Martinez puts into his players was reflected last Monday when Everton came from two down to win 3-2 at West Bromwich.

To win that way does show the spirit in their ranks, but to Evertonians of a nervous disposition, it might be best not to ask how their team came to be two goals down in the first place.

The beauty, and the bemusement of the derby is that nobody really knows how to call it. All three results are possible.

Two clubs from the same pod are as divided by a common past, and an uncertain next 90 minutes.

EVERTON V LIVERPOOL
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 04, 2015, with the headline 'Merseyside fervour lingers even as both sides sputter'. Print Edition | Subscribe